I’ll put money on the fact that every single woman reading this post has been cat called at some point in her life.
The first time it happened to me, I was ten years old walking home alone after swimming at the lake with my friends. I was fully clothed, scrawny and underdeveloped, and clearly a child. Walking for an hour on a busy street that afternoon in the United States, I was shouted at a minimum of ten times.
I remember feeling like a piece of my innocence was lost that day. Like something was wrong with me. Mostly, I remember feeling run down and exhausted. It shocked me in all of my innocence, that anyone would ever treat me this way.
As I blossomed into a teenager, I realized that blatant sexual harassment is an unfortunate reality. It didn’t happen that often, but enough for me to be aware of it.
Then, at 25 I left to travel on my own, in a highly Machismo culture on the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. I was shocked to discover that a ten-minute bicycle ride meant being eye raped by nearly every man that I passed.
And then there were the calls. The cat calls.
“Ohhhhh mami, I looovvee you,” said in a seriously disgusting tone.
“Want sex, want sex?” the teenagers outside the grocery store shouted.
Most commonly I heard my personal favorite, the straight up hissing sound.
I went to Mexico where a man masturbated in the ATM stall next to me, in Belize where someone reached up my dress in a bar, and to Nicaragua where underage boys grabbed my ass as they passed on their bicycles.
For them, my body was not the sacred temple that I have come to know it to be.
So I tried everything I could imagine to make it better. I ignored them. I glared. I shamed them in my limited Spanish. I shouted enthusiasm sarcastically. I tried a lot of things but really, nothing made me feel better. (I even wrote this: What I Think About Machismo.)
I learned to not be shocked by it, but it still didn’t feel good.
When I got to Morocco the harassment hit me like a bulldozer. This time the cat calls didn’t come from ten men, they came from ten thousand. And it was more than just calling. They followed me everywhere I went and harassed me to no end. While the men in Latin America just wanted to call me a cat, the men in Morocco wanted me to be their cat.
I dressed in long sleeves and long pants, which oddly seemed to elicit more harassment. I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. I walked as fast as I could through the streets. A few times I publicly shamed them, which did seem to make it stop. Though I felt exhausted, allowing my energy to be taken by every man I passed. (Read How to Travel Alone as a Woman in Morocco Without Going Insane.)
I found myself hating a culture of men that in my heart I actually loved. My sister’s husband is from Morocco and I’ve never seen him nor any of his friends behave anything less than honorably towards women.
It felt really good coming back to the USA, where at least sexual harassment was the exception and not the rule. But I was reminded of it constantly, with so many women contacting me, asking what they should do to make the sexual harassment stop. And really, I didn’t have the answer.
I decided that coming back to Costa Rica, I was going to figure it out.
Now, back in the sweet jungle, ultra machismo, oversexed Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, I’m dealing with the hungry eyes again. The eyes that tell you they want to eat you. Or as they say here, “yo quiero comerte.” Only this time I’m dealing with it differently, and I can honestly say, these days it hardly ever bothers me.
That’s not to say that I have the answer what you should to do to deal with it. Or how you should handle it. Because what I’ve discovered, is that the answer is unique for every single woman.
I’ve realized that the only way I want to respond, in silence or in words, is the way that makes me feel the best. Whether what I say or don’t say, do or don’t do, is received or not received by these men, does not qualify how well I’ve handled the situation. What determines a successful interaction, is how I feel after the exchange. Because ultimately, the only way I find clarity is by focusing on myself. Confusion comes when I try to change what lies outside of myself.
So let me ask you this, what makes you feel the best?
In Morocco what made me feel the best, was chanting loudly as I walked in the streets, forming a bubble around myself, tuning out anything other than the purity of my voice.
Lately, what makes me feel the best, is responding with a smile or a hello, with all of the innocence of the girl who never got yelled at walking home that day after the lake. What makes me feel the best is a kind greeting that comes from the purest depths of my heart. Not to prove that I’m a better person or to make them feel good, but to lift my own spirit with the weightlessness of my beautiful smile.
And occasionally, what makes me feel the best is to laugh. Or to groan. Or to express anything that helps me to realize that I don’t need to absorb any of the shame of it, and I don’t need to carry the responsibility of changing them either. I do what I can to feel lightness in the heaviness it can bring.
I let myself radiate my sweet, pure, light, trusting that no one gets to take it. I don’t shine for them, but if they want to, they are welcome to let my light warm them. That’s how bright I am.
My invitation to you, is to focus less on what they are doing and what they are saying, and focus more on loving yourself through it, so that you can see that none of it has anything to do with who you are. And that all of it has everything to do with how much you can open up your own heart to the paradise of who you are.
Do. What. Makes. You. Feel. Best.
I know it isn’t always easy, but I know you’re a badass. You got this goddess. You got this.
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